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Vol. 81/No. 11      March 20, 2017

(special feature article)

Cuba & Angola: the war for freedom in
southern Africa

Havana event on book by ‘Pombo’ highlights Cuban Revolution’s proletarian internationalism and moral values

HAVANA — “I was asked to say a few words about my experiences in prison and as an internationalist combatant,” said Gerardo Hernández. “But frankly, I feel a little uncomfortable talking about that here, surrounded by so many combatants with so much history.”

Hernández was speaking at a Feb. 15 presentation of Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom by Harry Villegas, known around the world by his nom de guerre, Pombo. The launching of the Pathfinder Press title, published in both Spanish and English, was part of the Havana International Book Fair.

Hernández’s description was not an overstatement. The overflow audience of 120 included dozens of revolutionary combatants — veterans of Cuba’s internationalist missions abroad, especially in Angola and other African nations, and of Cuba’s own revolutionary battles. Hernández himself is one of the five Cubans who spent more than a decade and a half in U.S. prisons for their actions in defense of the Cuban Revolution. He and two others of the Five also served in Angola.

Attending the event were diplomatic representatives of eight African countries. They included the ambassadors from Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), South Africa, Namibia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (previously Zaire), and Equatorial Guinea, as well as the cultural attaches of Angola and Mali.

Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom is a book-length interview with Harry Villegas, a brigadier general in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), now retired. It’s a firsthand account of Cuba’s volunteer military mission in Angola, which between 1975 and 1991 helped defend the newly independent country against multiple invasions by the South African apartheid regime and its backers in Washington and other imperialist governments.

The 1988 defeat of the South African army at what is known as the battle of Cuito Cuanavale assured Angolan sovereignty. It also led to the independence of Namibia and hastened the end of white-supremacist rule in South Africa.

In addition to Villegas, the speakers presenting the new book were Víctor Dreke, Gerardo Hernández, and Mary-Alice Waters. Dreke is the head of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution in Havana Province and president of the Cuba-Africa Friendship Association. Hernández is today vice rector of Cuba’s Higher Institute of International Relations. Waters is president of Pathfinder Press, co-editor of Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom, and a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States.

Joining them on the platform were Brig. Gen. Delsa Esther “Teté” Puebla, vice president of the Combatants Association, and Col. Leonardo Tamayo, better known as “Urbano,” who in 1966–67, together with Villegas, was part of a revolutionary column that fought in Bolivia under Che Guevara’s command. Urbano and Pombo were two of the five combatants who eluded capture by the Bolivian army and its U.S. advisers after Che and others were killed.

Also joining the platform were Aleida Guevara March, daughter of Che Guevara, and Iraida Aguirrechu of the Editora Política publishing house, who assisted in preparing the new book.

The War for Freedom, Dreke told the audience, tells the story of “Cuba’s participation in the liberation of Angola and other countries in Africa, responding to the requests of African governments and liberation movements.”

Dreke himself was part of a unit of Cuban volunteers, led by Che Guevara, who in 1965 fought in the Congo alongside Congolese anti-imperialist fighters. In 1966-68, Dreke also headed Cuba’s mission aiding forces in Guinea-Bissau fighting for independence from Portugal.

Fidel’s decisive leadership
This account of the Angola mission, Dreke said, is told from a unique vantage point. Villegas served there in 1977–79, commanding a Motorized Infantry Regiment in Angola’s northern region. He then returned in 1981, serving for some seven years as liaison between the Cuban command in Angola and the Revolutionary Armed Forces special command post in Cuba, headed by Fidel Castro.

“A liaison’s assignment in a war, in addition to the military dangers, carries great political responsibilities,” Dreke noted. “Providing accurate information is crucial to those making decisions. And Fidel, as commander in chief, would ask about even the smallest details. You’ll read in the book how our commander would ask Pombo, ‘Tell me what you’ve seen, not what anyone else has told you. Give me your opinion.’”

Hernández said The War for Freedom offers an accurate account of Cuba’s role in the liberation of southern Africa. Young Cubans need to know this history, he insisted. And that becomes increasingly important as the events become more distant for new generations.

“It’s no secret that in many places in the world today, when there is talk about the independence of Angola, or the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, Cuba is often not even mentioned,” Hernández said. “Revolutionaries around the world are in constant battle against imperialism’s propaganda machine, which seeks to distort and rewrite history to their liking.”

Cuban combatants set example
Hernández paid tribute to the members of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution present in the meeting, not only for their support to the worldwide campaign to free the Cuban Five from U.S. prisons, but above all for their own example. It was “the heroes and heroines who came before the Five,” he said, “who with their example charted a course of struggle and resistance that inspired us in prison.”

Mary-Alice Waters noted how communist workers in the United States and other countries are using Cuba and Angola in their political activity among workers and youth. Through the living example of the Cuban Revolution, she said, the record Villegas presents helps us explain what socialism really means. A socialist revolution is about “learning who we are capable of becoming — how we transform ourselves, as we fight to transform our economic and social relations.”

What comes through in Pombo’s account, said Waters, is the proletarian moral values instilled by Cuba’s revolutionary leadership, especially Fidel Castro: “The dignity and respect with which every human being is treated — Cuban, Angolan, Namibian, whether friend or enemy combatant. The determination to win every battle with the least possible sacrifice of human lives.”

And “Why, in Fidel’s words, ‘those not willing to fight for the freedom of others will never be able to fight for their own.’” (See Waters’ remarks on this page.)

Needed for new generations
Villegas described how Cuba and Angola came about over several years of collaboration with the book’s editors, while he was the executive vice president of the Combatants Association, working under the leadership of its president, Commander Juan Almeida. The book was aimed especially at young people in the United States and other countries, he said. But the Combatants leadership also found it valuable as a way to “promote revolutionary values among the young generations of Cubans.”

Collaboration between Pathfinder and the Combatants Association, Villegas added, has also led to books based on interviews with several other general officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. He cited Marianas in Combat by Teté Puebla, a firsthand account of the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon in the Rebel Army during the Cuban revolutionary war; From the Escambray to the Congo by Víctor Dreke; and Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution, one of whose authors, Brig. Gen. Gustavo Chui, was in the audience.

Teté Puebla pointed out that Cuba’s internationalist solidarity extends far beyond Africa to lesser-known experiences, such as its support to the Vietnamese liberation war.

“Fidel always reminded us that everywhere where Cubans fought, the only thing we brought back was the bodies of our fallen combatants,” she said.

‘We learned about colonialism’
Leonardo Tamayo spoke about his participation in Angola in a battalion of special troops of Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior. The battalion landed literally hours before the country’s formal independence ceremony on Nov. 11, 1975, and was pivotal in the initial battles that repelled the invasion by Zairean and South African troops.

“We had the opportunity to learn about the hardships imposed by colonialism on the Angolan people,” Tamayo said. “And we were respectful toward the people of that country in every way.”

Aleida Guevara spoke about her participation in the Angola mission as a young pediatric doctor. For Cubans of her generation who served in Angola, “it was an experience that marked us for life,” she said. She contrasted the brutal realities she witnessed, faced by millions across the semicolonial world, with the gains won by Cuban working people through a socialist revolution.`

Speaking from the audience, Gen. Gustavo Chui, who was severely wounded in the Angolan war, mentioned his own experience organizing the staff of the special command post in Havana at the beginning of the war in 1975. He underscored Villegas’s description of Fidel Castro’s decisive political and military leadership in winning the victory.

Today, Chui said, when people talk about the war in Angola, they often think only of the victorious battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-88. “But Angola was a long struggle. It extended over 15 years.”

Pascal Onguemby, ambassador of Congo-Brazzaville and dean of the diplomatic corps in Havana, commented that in talking about the war in Angola, people “often forget to mention the Republic of the Congo.” He emphasized the crucial act of the Congo-Brazzaville government in November 1975 in allowing the initial Cuban forces to land there on their way to Angola to defeat the Zairean and South African invasion.

Over the decades, no country in the world has done for Africa what Cuba has done, Onguemby explained.

“Cuba went to Africa to fight the Ebola epidemic, while others sent guns,” he said. “How can you fight Ebola with guns?” Onguemby was referring to the Cuban medical volunteers who went to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in 2014 to fight the deadly epidemic, in contrast to Washington, which sent a few medical professionals along with hundreds of troops.

Ambassadors and diplomatic representatives of the other African countries present also took the floor, thanking Cuba for its decades-long internationalist solidarity.

At the end of the meeting, those in attendance bought all 180 copies available of Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom, along with several dozen other books at the Pathfinder table.
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‘Living example of the Cuban Revolution helps explain what socialism really means’
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